Oneida emphasizes how non-traditional lifestyles can succeed
Oneida is an iconic American brand known for its elegant but reasonably priced tableware. But Oneida’s roots lie in an unusual Christian community that combines free love with capitalism.
ARI SHAPIRO, moderator:
Flip your fork in a restaurant or home and you might see the name Oneida. For a long time, Oneida was one of the largest flat tableware companies in the world. Noel King from our Planet Money podcast brings us the story of Oneida, a company that reminds us that capitalist success can come from non-traditional lifestyles.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: To get Oneida, you must start with the previous Oneida Commune. In the 1840s, the second great awakening was underway. This is a moment of religious enthusiasm, seeing the birth of the Mormon Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the perfectionists who believe that people should strive to be perfect on earth.
The founder of the commune, John Humphrey Noyes, is a perfectionist. He has red hair, freckles and strong glamour. His great great great niece, Ellen Welan Smith, wrote a book called “Oneida”.
ELLEN WAYLAND-SMITH: When you are in a room with him, the whole room is lit up and he wants you to do whatever he tells you to do.
KING: In the 1840s, Noyes and his followers worked in the countryside of Oneida, New York. Many communes are emerging. Tony Wonderly, a historian in the Oneida community, says most are very basic.
TONY WONDERLY: They make shoes, or they can make chairs. They will do what people do in the Middle Ages.
KING: Oneidans is different. Noyes attracts talented optimists, CEO types. They started making animal traps by hand, but quickly came up with how to mass produce them. The trap makes Oneidans rich. Then they expanded to other industries, such as tableware. They share all the money together and they share something else. They practice free love through a system to regulate their experiences. This is Allen.
WAYLAND-SMITH: They called them interviewees.
WAYLAND-SMITH: Interview. That is their euphemism.
KING: Another Oneida euphemism – a complex marriage.
WAYLAND-SMITH: The rule is that all men in the community marry all women. In other words, all women and men can get in touch with each other in terms of sex.
KING: It is useful to them. The commune has prospered for 30 years. But this country has become more religious and conservative. The government began to sue Mormons in the West. This is Tony Wonderly.
Wonderful: They always say that when the government catches up with Mormons, we must see our tail. They will follow us next.
KING: So in 1880, members voted to end the commune of free love and focus on a thriving business. Oneida will be owned collectively by 200 adults. When the glamorous John Humphrey Noyes died, his son Pierrepont took over in around 1900.
Wonderful thing: Most of us are as smart as we are to live our lives. Occasionally we meet a very intelligent person. When this happens, it is unmistakable. And Pierrepont is like this.
KING: The religion of Pierrepont is business. He realized that the American middle class is growing and they can’t afford sterling silver. Oneida’s silver-plated cutlery is an economical alternative. He uses ingenious advertising, including cool young women and beautiful housewives, to make Oneida cutlery a must-have.
But the spirit of the commune still guides the company’s values. Oneida built a small town for its workers. It helps them buy a house. It pays the teacher’s salary. It makes executives pay less. It became the success of capitalism and still cared for its workers. It has thrived for decades.
Then there is a familiar story in American manufacturing – Oneida strives to compete with foreign imports. A few years ago, Onida filed for bankruptcy. The rest is merged with another company to become the Oneida Group.